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Last winter, as my friend Julia and I enjoyed a rare sunny day, strolling and discussing the important creations of a renowned architect, our discussion led us to consider what sort of person he was.
Julia recalled that a university professor had told her the architect, despite his talent and vision, was also widely reported to have been arrogant. The professor had turned to Julia and said that the architect was entitled to his arrogance—he had earned it. In fact, the professor continued, anyone who had worked hard to become an expert in a chosen field was entitled to be arrogant.
Long ago, I worked in an advertising agency where the general manager allowed his creative team a wide margin of behavior—he told the secretaries and other support staff that because of their talent the creative team and the writers were entitled to be demanding, petulant, and arrogant. Predictably, they indulged in fits of anger, churlish behavior, childish tantrums, and treated the support staff with disrespect and dismissiveness. I soon left.
That experience made me wonder: who is entitled to arrogance? Is anyone? Does superior talent and expertise entitle us to be demanding or to belittle others?
I think of the courtesy and kindness with which the renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan treated the young Neil deGrasse Tyson, answering that young man’s questions, nurturing his curiosity, inspiring his lifelong intellectual inquiry. How different would Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s life have been, indeed would all our lives have been, had Sagan dismissed Tyson as a child unworthy of his respect and consideration.
Many religious traditions share the view that each person is inherently noble. The Baha’i writings explain how human beings should strive to behave, and Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:
I admonish you to observe courtesy, for above all else it is the prince of virtues. Well is it with him who is illumined with the light of courtesy and is attired with the vesture of uprightness. Whoso is endued with courtesy hath indeed attained a sublime station.
We learn from the religious texts that our task in life is to acquire virtues, to mirror the attributes of God, and to develop the insight that enables us to see those qualities reflected in others—in fact, to actively look for them. We learn to treat others as we expect to be treated.
In Hindu scripture, we read, “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” In Islam, a hadith states, “None of you will have faith until he wishes for his brother what he desires for himself.” Christianity has given us the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” and in the Baha’i writings we read, “Choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.” Believing that we share a common humanity leads us to treat others as we would wish to be treated—a verity in every faith tradition.
It doesn’t matter how superior our knowledge might be, how original our creations, or how creative our minds—no person, however ingenious, brilliant, or talented, has any right to arrogance. We each have the basic human duty to cultivate humility and courtesy as inner virtues, for the good of all.
So we must take steps to practice courtesy, to adorn ourselves with this spiritual virtue. Courtesy is conscious behavior. Practicing courtesy may at first feel false, stilted, inauthentic, or even pretentious—but over time, conscious courtesy leads to second-nature courtesy, and courtesy leads to empathy. Empathy produces acts of compassion, and compassion heals the wounds of society.